Stage-setting readings and videos to kick off an intro biostats course: here are mine, please share your suggestions

Here are the stage-setting readings and videos I use to kick off my intro biostats course. I want to give the students an engaging overview of what statistics is all about. I also want to get them thinking about how statistics connects up with their other biology courses, and with their lives. These readings and videos are an optional-but-strongly-encouraged supplement to my intro lecture.

David Vaux: Know when your numbers are significant. Overview of basic concepts of descriptive statistics and null hypothesis testing, aimed at biologists.

Amelia McNamara: Do you know nothing when you see it? Covers the same broad territory as Vaux’s piece, but in the form of a video. Also goes beyond Vaux’s piece to cover bootstrapping.

Mona Chalabi: Three ways to spot a bad statistic. TED talk by a data journalist. I like this for several reasons. It’s by someone who’s not an academic, and it’s about the use (and abuse) of statistics in people’s everyday lives. I don’t want students thinking that statistics is just for biology research. It engages seriously with, and rebuts, the claim that statistics–all of it–is inherently elitist and misleading, just a way for the powerful to bamboozle and control the powerless. Also engages seriously with the claim that all statistics are misleading because, by design, they fail to capture the uniqueness of individual lived experiences.

Kieran Healy: The kitchen counter observatory. Covers some of the same territory as the Chalabi video. It’s about how data can bring you closer to, rather than distance you from, the reality of individual human lives. Especially during a pandemic. Also a good piece for letting students know just how much data is available online, for free. And it’s lovely writing.

Andrew Gelman: A world without statistics. Here’s a statistician questioning whether statistics is actually all that important in the grand scheme of things. My hope is to surprise students a little, and so get them thinking, by giving them a contrarian piece from an unexpected source.

Joel Cohen: Mathematics is biology’s next microscope, only better; biology is mathematics’ next physics, only better. Not just about statistics, though statistics figures into it. Good contrast with the Gelman piece. I like giving the students readings expressing a range of different (and sometimes conflicting) views.

Ben Bolker: Other people’s data. This one probably resonates the least with undergrad students in intro biostats, because it’s aimed at Ben’s fellow quantitative ecologists. But I think it’s a good complement to the Cohen piece, because it’s about the human side of doing statistics (and other sorts of math) as a biologist.

Anyway, those are the pieces I use at the moment. But there’s a whole world of material out there, most of which I’m unaware of. So what readings, videos, or other materials do you use to kick off intro biostats? Looking forward to your comments.

Video: most meta-analyses in ecology are too small (for most purposes)

As most of you already know, I had to pull out of this year’s virtual ESA meeting. To partially make up for pulling out, below is an extended video version of what I would’ve said.

Heads up #1: this is a full-length research talk (actually, it’s even a bit too long for that), not an ESA-length talk, so grab a drink and get comfortable. Or, you know, fast forward a lot. I didn’t bother to edit down the research talk I already had semi-prepared.

Heads up #2: Speaking of semi-prepared…it’s not an especially polished talk. In my own defense, I was aiming for a casual vibe, like if you were talking to me about ecology in a bar. But if I were giving the talk for a live audience (which I’d love to do, I really miss giving live talks…), I would definitely prepare a crisp, polished version.

Heads up #3: I had a beer during the talk. Like I said, I was aiming for a “talking about ecology in a bar” vibe. Also, you get to see my back yard. YMMV as to whether those are features or bugs. 🙂

The link to the talk:

Heads up: you aren’t supposed to upload a prerecorded talk for ESA 2021. You’re supposed to record it using the ESA’s online system.

Last night I had planned to record and upload a video of my talk for the ESA 2021 virtual meeting. My plan was to do what I did last year: record my talk in Zoom and then upload it as an mp4 file. I was all ready to go when, on a whim, I decided to first click the link in the email from ESA, labeled “Guidelines for preparing a talk for upload“.

Am I glad I did! Because it turns out that they’re not guidelines for uploading your prerecorded talk. They’re rules for creating and recording your talk. You can click that link to see the rules, but here’s a summary:

  • You first have to upload your slides in PowerPoint or pdf format. Your slides cannot have any animations, or any audio or video embedded.
  • Wait 5 minutes or so for the uploaded slides to be processed.
  • Record a voiceover for whichever slides need voiceover, using the ESA’s meeting platform. This means that there won’t be a window in the corner with a video of you speaking; it’s voiceover only. And as best I can tell, you can’t record any pointer or cursor movements either (remember, no animation). You have to record voiceover for one slide at a time.
  • Not required but strongly recommended: copyedit the AI-generated closed captioning, using the text editor within the ESA’s web interface. The ESA’s website warns you that the text is likely to need a lot of editing. AI-generated closed captioning is bad with technical language.
  • If you don’t want to do the above, and prefer to record your own mp4 and upload it, you have to ask permission from the meeting organizers. The organizers then have to make special arrangements for you to do your upload. Also, apparently you can’t upload an mp4 video instead of your slides? It sounds like you can only upload a video as a way to provide a voiceover for your slides? I infer that because the meeting website says that you have the option to upload a video “instead of recording audio within the system”, and warns that your video “will not automatically sync with your slides”.

I wish I’d realized this sooner. I shared this news with a couple of colleagues as soon as I found out, and they were both shocked to hear it. So based on that admittedly small and non-random sample of ESA meeting presenters, I bet a lot of presenters have no idea that they can’t just upload an mp4 video of their talk, like they did last year. And I bet a lot of them have not blocked off the considerable extra time that will be required to use the ESA’s online system to record their talks.

I’m afraid I don’t have that time myself. I budgeted enough time to prepare my talk in my usual way, record it in Zoom, and upload an mp4. I didn’t budget time to strip the animations out of my slides, learn to use the ESA’s online recording system, and copyedit AI-generated closed captioning. I’m out of time now. I’m traveling today, to finally see family I haven’t seen in 18 awful months. I won’t be back until after the July 15 deadline to upload talks. So I’ve pulled my talk from the meeting. I feel bad about that. I’ve never pulled out of ESA before, and I’ve been presenting pretty much every year for over 20 years. So I’ll probably record the talk on Zoom as I originally planned and post it on the blog for anyone who wants to see it.

But hopefully you still have time. For those of you who are giving oral presentations at ESA 2021, I hope that you found this heads-up useful.

Why do ecologists publish so many more meta-analyses than evolutionary biologists?

As regular readers will know, my side project over the last 18 months has been a meta-analysis of ecological meta-analyses. With the assistance of a very capable undergraduate assistant, I’ve compiled a fairly comprehensive database of 466 ecological meta-analyses.* That’s a lot of meta-analyses!**

Specifically, it’s a lot of meta-analyses compared to how many there are in evolutionary biology. Last winter, an undergraduate independent study student of mine decided to compile meta-analyses from evolutionary biology. She only found 33. Now, she had only limited time to complete her project, so she may well not have found all meta-analyses that would’ve met the inclusion criteria. But still, I don’t think she overlooked several hundred meta-analyses that would’ve met her inclusion criteria. And FWIW (not much…), her data support my offhand impression that there are many fewer meta-analyses in evolutionary biology than in ecology. It’s definitely possible I’m wrong about this, and you think I’m wrong you should definitely say so in the comments.

But assuming for the sake of argument that I’m not wrong, why are there so many more ecological than evolutionary meta-analyses? Because it’s a bit strange, when you think about how central the comparative method is to evolutionary biology. Shouldn’t that emphasis on the value of comparative studies translate into doing lots of meta-analyses like this one? Here are some speculative hypotheses as to why there are so many more ecological than evolutionary meta-analyses. They’re not mutually exclusive hypotheses.

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